Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Strange Attractors 2

I wanted to start with this little game because I think it is emblematic of independent games. Not only is it mechanically unique but it is perfectly executed. It is nice to look at and yet democratic enough to run on any computer. It is also a rarity in that it is available at the Greenhouse and not on Steam.

Ludologists might call this a "pure" game - that is it is narrative free and nearly devoid of all metaphor. I have been assured that I am in command of a "ship" that flies through "space" - that is to say a "spaceship" - but in all reality this "space" is just a Cartesian plane. There is no greater purpose. This game is a toy. You manipulate the game state and things change. And that is all you do. In its way it is wonderful.

This game isn't about what you do, but about how you do it. What you do is patently basic video game nonsense: You navigate an environment, collect collectibles, avoid hazards, unlock doors and move forward toward a finish line. This formula has been perfected since 1985 so it sounds like a laundry list of boring until you get to the control scheme.

You can do three things: Turn gravity on, turn gravity off and reverse gravity. Mind you these are not bonus powers that you get in addition to traditional options such as "go left" and "go right" and "stop" Gravity manipulation is the only thing you can do. You play this game with two buttons.

How it works is that the playing field is replete with objects that have gravity potential, (and others that don't). You turn gravity on and you begin moving according to the rhythms of science - mass and distance factor in. You get up some speed, find yourself going in a direction you like and you let go, turn gravity off, and sail straightwise through inertialess space. Maybe you bounce off something. Maybe you tap gravity back on for a second so you can briefly sink into a tight orbit and turn a corner. Maybe there is a door to your right and a source of gravity to your left so you reverse gravity and push yourself on through. Maybe you miss your target by a hair and end up ricocheting down the halls of some neon labrynth, hurlting far from your goal, shouting "nooooooo!" and wondering why I recommended this game to you.

Basically the game is physics homework. Wonderful physics homework. There is a learning curve, but after some time with the game the controls start feeling intuitive. You begin to feel like a sucker for all that time you squandered playing games with characters that move under their own volition instead of with all the grace of gravity.

The graphics are firmly grounded in what I call the "Tron Aesthetic" - everything is bright neon on black. I generally eschew nostalgia of any kind, but I'm a sucker for this look. You might not be. It is conducive to interpreting the environment, but it is not the most innovative design. The soundtrack is techno-ish, mellow and atmospheric. I only find one track memorable at all but it is never grating.

The game is never "addicting" which is good or bad depending on what you want from a game. I'm never dying to play this game, just generally pleased when I do. I'll play one level and call it quits for the day. It hits all the right notes on difficulty. It frustrates and challenges without punishing. The game will continue to surprise you with new mechanics and designs.

The demo is lacking, but I like things that look like Tron so much I bought it anyway and am glad I did. Developers need to understand that it is safe to reveal much more content in a demo. This game gives you one lousy level, the purpose of which is just to demonstrate the basic mechanics of the game. While it succeeds at doing that much, I will say that if I had been given the first nine levels instead I would have been irrevocably hooked.